The Founders' Fatal Flaw
What happened to the founders’ republic? Where did it go? Can we get it back?
The idea and reality of a limited, constitutional government, the purpose of which is to protect the unalienable rights of individuals, seems all but lost to us today. It has been 90 years since America took its hard left turn. As the United States crawls along the road to socialism, as it has been for the last 90 years, it is imperative that we consider how and why we got here.
Broadly speaking, the general political structure created by the Constitution of 1788 (e.g., separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, representation, elections, etc.) is still largely intact, but its inner moral core, or what the eighteenth-century French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) referred to as the “spirit of the laws,” also seems rotted and hollowed out. Surely, most of what the federal government does today could never have been imagined by the founding generation. In many ways, our redistributive-regulatory State would be unrecognizable to the founding generation. More importantly, we now have a generation of political leaders, academics, journalists, and various other opinion-makers who explicitly reject the principles and institutions on which this country was founded. There are even moves afoot today to scrap the Constitution altogether.
How did we get here? And can we reverse direction? For those who want to restore something approximating the founders’ liberalism and their ideal of a free society, how do we get there? Is it still possible to do so, or is it a fool’s errand? These are the animating questions of our time.
The guiding purpose of the first few essays in this series on the nature and meaning of a free society has been to understand the external attacks on and the internal weaknesses of the founders’ liberalism. In “Truth, Nihilism, and the American Founding,” I examined the late nineteenth and twentieth-century assault on the founders’ understanding of the concept “truth.” And then in “You Kant Get There from Here,” I explored how and why the highest aspiration of the Enlightenment—i.e., John Locke’s attempt to construct and validate a secular science of ethics—failed philosophically. In the wake of Locke’s admission that he had aborted his quest, virtually all eighteenth-century moral philosophers abandoned Locke’s project and rushed in to save the source and substance of traditional morality from the penetrating gaze of Enlightenment reason. Moral philosophers such as Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), Lord Kames (1696-1782), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Adam Smith (1723-1790) relocated the source of human morality in a supposed innate moral sense, and they redefined the substance of morality to align with the traditional morality of self-sacrifice. But it was Immanuel Kant who, more than any other philosopher of the eighteenth century, turned Enlightenment rationalism against itself in order to destroy it.
America’s founding fathers, caught as they were in something of a philosophic time warp, saw themselves and their task as fulfilling the goals of the Enlightenment project. But there was a problem—three actually. First, America’s founders, while having been exposed to Enlightenment philosophy, were not trained philosophers and they had more pressing business to concern themselves with over the course of forty years, such as fighting a war and founding a new nation. Second, the founding generation’s pro-Enlightenment moral-political principles were eventually exposed to counter-Enlightenment ideas that rejected their moral principles and which sought to restore traditional modes of morality repackaged in new forms. Finally, and this was the founders’ Achilles heel, late-eighteenth-century Americans had only partially liberated themselves from their Calvinist forebears, which meant they were still beholden to a moral philosophy that told them self-sacrifice was their most important virtue.
I would like to turn more directly now in this essay and the next to some of the internal weaknesses, flaws, and contradictions in the founders’ moral views. In so doing, I am going beyond the traditional role of the political philosopher or historian, whose primary task is to recreate and understand the founders’ views simply on their own terms. Instead, I am partially abandoning the role of neutral observer to identify what I consider to be the deficiencies in the founders’ moral thought, deficiencies that would eventually undermine the cultural conditions necessary for sustaining the magnificent political structure they built. Unlike the critics of America’s founders and their principles (e.g., those on the progressive Left and the reactionary Right), however, I am writing to help complete or perfect the founders’ project.
During the 12-year period from the announcement of a Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, to the ratification of the Constitution on June 22, 1788, America’s revolutionary founders launched a new nation unlike any other in world history. In fact, it was so revolutionary that it broke decisively with the modes of government first established in the seventeenth century by England’s Anglo-American settlers up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
The Declaration announced as a core Truth (i.e., as an objective, absolute, permanent, and universal truth) that individuals have certain unalienable rights, which means these rights cannot be violated or taken away by government. In fact, the Declaration went further and claimed that the sole purpose of government was to protect said rights—the rights to life, liberty, (property), and the pursuit of happiness. The purpose of the founders’ government was not, therefore, to make men equal, good, pious, or morally virtuous. It was to make them free. This view of government’s role in the lives of ordinary Americans was eloquently summed up 25 years later by the Declaration’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address: “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
The Constitution begins with a Preamble, which restates and sanctions the Declaration’s moral-political goals (e.g., to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . .”). The two documents are insolubly linked. In his typically poetic way, Abraham Lincoln established the necessary relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution in unmistakable terms: “The assertion of that principle [i.e., Liberty to all], at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.” The form of government created by the body of the Constitution flows naturally from the Declaration’s moral principles, and the political institutions it created approximated what we might call a laissez-faire or Night Watchman government. The founders’ government was, for the most part, strictly limited in the scope of its objects and powers. (I shall have more to say about the internal contradictions built into the Constitution in my next essay.)
The principles and institutions established at the time of the American founding represent the highest expression of Enlightenment or classical liberalism. They also represent the formal, legal, and official statement about what America is or should be. The founders’ principles were genuinely revolutionary, which means they created something new, but they created something new alongside or on top of something old. Unlike French revolutionaries, American revolutionaries did not attempt to eradicate the totality of their past. Instead, they attempted to reconcile the past with the present. Simply put, they attempted to reconcile, or at least to live with, two moral-cultural philosophies that were necessarily in tension with one another: Christian piety, duty, self-sacrifice, and communalism with Enlightenment reason, rights, self-interest, and individualism.
The best way to see this tension (and the problems inherent in it) is to view the principles and institutions of America’s revolutionary founding in the light of what Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as America’s first founding, that is, the founding(s) of the first British colonies in America. Virtually all of America’s seventeenth-century colonies were founded explicitly, in one way or another, as Christian colonies. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Massachusetts.
Before the Founders’ Liberalism
The Pilgrims who came to Massachusetts Bay in 1620 signed a compact aboard their ship, the Mayflower, before they disembarked. The famous Mayflower Compact committed the new colony to establishing a Christian commonwealth, the ends of which are “for the Glory of God, and for the advancement of the Christian faith.” To these ends, the colonists promised “all due Submission and Obedience.” A decade later, the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts to establish their “City upon a Hill,” the purpose of which, according to the first Massachusetts Charter, was to pursue “the Knowleg and Obedience of the onlie true God and Sauior of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth [sic].” (I am keeping the original spellings of the documents from which I am quoting.)
The paterfamilias of first-generation Massachusetts Puritans was John Winthrop, who, more than any other of his contemporaries, guided the founding of the Puritan commonwealth. Aboard the Arabella at the end of their Atlantic passage in 1630, Winthrop delivered a speech (“A Model of Christian Charity”) to his fellow Puritan passengers on the moral principles that would serve as the foundation for their new commonwealth. This new Puritan state was to be grounded in the idea of Christian love, which united all members of the community through the “Bond of brotherly affeccion.” Christian love was necessary because, since the Fall, all men were, to one degree or another, sinners, and sinners were men guided by their selfish impulses. Christian love, according to Winthrop, commanded each member of the community to overcome his selfishness in order “to love his neighbour as himselfe.” In practice, this meant that “every man afford help to another in every want or distresse.” Specifically, this meant that there are times “when a Christian must sell all and give to the poore as they did in the Apostles times.” In fact, the Puritan moral philosophy called on men to help others “beyond our ability” and to “be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities.” (This was the Christian version of what later became Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”)
Nowhere was the doctrine of Christian love and its necessary political collectivism seen more clearly than in the Pilgrims’ experiment with the Christian communism. In his little noted nor long remembered, A History of the Colonies, John Marshall, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, described how the Pilgrims, “[m]isguided by their religious theories” that sought to imitate “the primitive Christians,” collectivized “their property into a common stock, laboured jointly for the common benefit, and were fed from the common stores.” The result of this “pernicious policy of a community of goods” was predictable: “They were often in danger of starving; and severe whipping, administered to promote labour, only increased discontent.” The Pilgrim’s practical experiment with collectivism failed, but its underlying moral spirit continued.
The whole point of Christian love is to overcome one’s selfish “self” (i.e., man’s natural propensity via Adam’s sin to lie, cheat, steal, murder, fornicate outside of marriage, or otherwise engage in morally degenerate behavior) and to sacrifice one’s own good for the sake of someone else’s good or for the “common good.” Indeed, the Puritans thought of everyone’s particular good as inseparable from the good of all. Precisely because Christian love cuts against the grain of human nature it requires, however, the assistance of the government’s coercive power to enforce it. In theory, Christian love was the glue the united and perfected Puritan society, but it required a totalizing government to enforce it in practice. Thus, the Puritans embarked on a utopian experiment to overcome man’s selfish nature with Christian love and force.
Winthrop’s attempt to square the circle between man’s innate depravity and Christian love can be seen in his famous “Little Speech on Liberty” delivered in 1639, where he drew a sharp distinction between what he called “natural liberty” (bad) and “moral liberty” (good). Natural liberty is that which permits a man “to do what he lists: it is a liberty to evil as well as to good.” The idea of men and women being free to order their own lives, Winthrop continued, “is incompatible and inconsistent with authority, and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority.” Over time, such liberty only compounds the evil that lurks in men’s hearts and must therefore be controlled and restricted by government laws backed by coercive force. Government should not, therefore, leave men alone protected by their right to be free.
By contrast, moral liberty, the only kind of liberty supported by the Puritans, “is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest.” Moral liberty means the freedom to do only what God commands and “Christ allows you,” which was of course determined by the clergy and divinely-appointed rulers; it was the liberty to “quietly and cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you, in all the administrations of it, for your good.” In other words, moral liberty is the liberty to obey and submit to God’s commands. Moral liberty, according to Winthrop, can only be “maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority; it is the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”
Either way, both natural and moral liberty require a government with laws that coerce correct thought and action and punish wrongdoers. According to Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, strict obedience to the law (the purpose of which is make men good) is liberating and gives men access to a truer and higher realm of freedom. This view of liberty and its relationship to government is not dissimilar to Aristotle’s injunction in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, “what the law does not command, it forbids.” The higher purpose of Puritan law was to make men morally good just as it was for the ancient city. Sitting atop the Puritans’ “City Upon a Hill” were pious magistrates who made laws about family life, community manners and mores, church affairs, education, dress, sexual practices, business and commercial transactions, and politics. The Puritans controlled virtually all aspects of life, both spiritual and material. The purpose of their laws was to form communities into integrated wholes defined by God’s laws and the “common good.”
This is why the Puritans did not and could not separate the individual’s spiritual life from his political and communal life. There could be no separation of church and State for the Puritans. The two were inextricably linked. The Puritans believed that a society of regenerate men represented the body of Christ, which meant that all selfishness and individualism must be eradicated and replaced with obedience and submission to the laws made by “men of wisdom and virtue.” The Puritans viewed society as a hierarchically-arranged organic whole, and the glue that held it all together was Christian love, sacrifice, and obedience to God’s law. In this community of visible saints, the individual was bound to the “common good” of the whole community, which meant in practice to the divinely-inspired dictates of the magistrates. The Puritans did not believe, as the founders of 1787 would later come to accept, that society was an aggregation of individuals with rights to order their own lives free of government diktats.
For the Puritans, the State must not only regulate misconduct, it must also inspire and direct all conduct toward virtue, God, and the common good. The Puritans’ purpose in coming to America was, after all, to create Godly communities in which there could be no dissent from the truth. Those who did not follow God’s word as interpreted by their divines and magistrates would be punished or exiled.
Not surprisingly, the Puritans did not and could not sustain a moral-theological regime of this intensity for more than a couple of decades. The bottom line was this: the idea of Christian love is anathema to human nature and to man’s noblest and highest aspirations. In other words, it is a false and therefore immoral teaching. It was bound to fail. After the zeal of the first generation had subsided, the main trend of New England life for the rest of the century was toward greater liberalization. The infusion of new blood into the colonies and the continual process of westward movement and settlement had the effect of breaking down the walls of high-minded Puritan moralism. Eventually the spirit of Christian love and “common-good” Protestantism gave way in the public realm to the spirit of Enlightenment liberalism, which was a reality-based, reason-promoting philosophy grounded in the necessary requirements of human flourishing, but in the private realm it remained as strong as ever. And therein lies the contradiction.
Puritanism vs. Enlightenment Liberalism
It should be clear by now that the Puritans would have been repulsed by the founders’ idea that all men are created equal; that they have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and, worst of all, to the pursuit of happiness; that the sole purpose of government is to protect those rights; and that the people have a right to alter or abolish their governments. In other words, they would have been horrified by the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that the best government governs least and the idea of laissez-faire government would have been inexplicable and unacceptable to the Puritans. They believed in strong, intrusive government, the goal of which was to shape men’s souls via coercion, discipline, obedience, and submission. We can also assume that the founders would have rejected the Puritan political ideal. We can assume this because that is precisely what they did in practice.
Perry Miller, the greatest historian of the Puritans, has described their theory and practice of government as an unqualified dictatorship—a theocratic dictatorship of the regenerate wise and holy. The purpose of Puritan government was to save depraved men from their depravity. The Puritans permitted no dissent from the truth, and they persecuted and prosecuted dissenters. They did not hesitate to fine, jail, whip, amputate, hang, or even burn at the stake anyone who disagreed with them.
Had the Puritans written a statement of their moral-political faith in the form of the Declaration of Independence, it might have read as follows:
We hold these truths to be divinely inspired, that all men are created unequal; that they are endowed by their Creator with original sin, which means they must sacrifice their freedoms and rights; that to secure man’s duties to God and the common good, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the Supreme Being and his saving elect; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the duty of the people to obey.
The constitutional principles and institutions established at the time of the founding were grounded on a principle the opposite of the Aristotelian-Puritan dictum (i.e., “what the law does not command, it forbids”) and all forms of Christian politics up to the Reformation. For America’s founders, the law permits what it does not forbid. In America’s individual-rights republic, the law forbids the initiation of coercive force or fraud, but it otherwise leaves men alone to pursue their spiritual and material values free of government interference. The purpose of government in America is to “secure these rights”—full stop! The Declaration says nothing about making men good, virtuous, pious, or promoting the “common good” above and beyond protecting rights, even though America’s revolutionary Patriots all believed in the importance of living a good, virtuous, and pious life.
Let’s be clear: America’s revolutionary founders created a natural-rights republic that was morally superior to the Puritans’ “common-good” republic grounded in Christian love. A natural-rights republic begins with the individual as the primary unit of moral and political value. By contrast, the “common-good” republic begins with the tribe, nation, state, or “saved” as the primary unit of moral and political value. The founders’ Lockean republicanism, which is grounded on “reflection and choice” (see Hamilton, Federalist No. 1) and man’s unalienable individual rights, provided an answer to the obvious defects associated with the “common-good” politics associated the ancient republics, the early modern Christian republics, and Christian divine-right monarchy. The founders replaced the City of God with the City of Rights.
Locke’s Failure Comes to America
The founding generation rejected the Puritan idea of the State. Of that there can be no doubt. What they did not do, however, was to fully liberate themselves from the substance of their forefathers’ traditional moral principles, which included, if not most especially, the doctrine of Christian love. Despite all their pronouncements in favor of liberty and the right to the pursuit of happiness (which means pursuing one’s self-interest), most eighteenth-century Americans fell back in their day-to-day lives on the conventional morality of the time, which taught the lessons of selflessness, self-sacrifice, and duty. Such a teaching was necessarily in tension with, if not in contradiction to, their avowed political principles. And therein lies the fatal flaw built into the heart of the founders’ liberalism.
Put differently, Locke’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century students were unable, as with their teacher, to develop an objective, certain, absolute moral code consistent with a free society, and, more fundamentally, they were unable to defend the efficacy of reason, the intelligibility of nature, and the individual pursuit of happiness as an absolute and unalienable moral right. The consequences of Locke’s failure to develop a demonstrative science of ethics are seen most poignantly in the thought of America’s founding fathers, who, despite their many paeons to Enlightenment reason, rationality, and rights admitted openly that reason was unable to discern a comprehensive moral code.
Consider, for instance, the views of James Wilson (a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), who was educated in the eighteenth-century Scotland of the skeptic philosopher, David Hume. In his Lectures on Law delivered in 1790 to an audience that included President George Washington, Vice-President John Adams and both the members of both houses of Congress, Wilson declared: “The ultimate ends of human actions, can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason. They recommend themselves entirely to the sentiment and affections of men, without dependence on the intellectual faculties.” Morality comes to man, according to Wilson, through his “moral sense” and through “revelation.” In the end, Wilson and many of his generation were reduced to validating their Enlightenment morality on the basis of religious faith and feeling:
Having thus stated the question—what is the efficient cause of moral obligation?—I give it this answer—the will of God. This is the supreme law. His just and full right of imposing laws, and our duty in obeying them, are the sources of our moral obligations. If I am asked—why do you obey the will of God? I answer—because it is my duty so to do. If I am asked again—how do you know this to be your duty? I answer again—because I am told so by my moral sense or conscience. If I am asked a third time—how do you know that you ought to do that, of which your conscience enjoins the performance? I can only say, I feel that such is my duty. Here investigation must stop; reasoning can go no farther. The science of morals, as well as other sciences, is founded on truths, that cannot be discovered or proved by reasoning.
In this one statement, Wilson sums up perfectly and tragically the philosophic failure of Enlightenment philosophers (and America’s founding fathers) to validate the efficacy of reason and with it the possibility of obtaining objective moral knowledge. This is the last, symbolic denouement of Locke’s failed attempt a century earlier to establish a secular science of ethics.
This critical failure was exacerbated by a second problem—a contradiction inherent in the founders’ ethical theory. The moral heart and soul of the Declaration and hence of a free society is the claim that individuals have a natural, inalienable right to pursue their own happiness. This historically revolutionary claim assumes that individuals are morally sovereign, that they have a moral right to pursue their self-regarding interests, and that they should be the beneficiaries (for good or ill) of their own thoughts and actions. Embedded implicitly in the Declaration and in the founders’ general political philosophy is a vague and partial recognition of the principle that would distinguish American values from those of the rest of the world: the principle rational or enlightened self-interest—the principle which says that it is both necessary and right for individuals to pursue their rationally selfish values, to pursue their own individual happiness.
As the great historian Gordon S. Wood has argued in his Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, an important long-term consequence of the American Revolution was to make “the interests and prosperity of ordinary people—their pursuits of happiness—the goal of society and government.” This is precisely what Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his sojourn through mid-nineteenth-century America: the Frenchman noted in his Democracy in America that the Americans “are pleased to explain all the actions of their life with the aid of self-interest well understood.” In fact, most Americans, he claimed, “think that knowledge of one’s self-interest well understood is enough to lead man toward the just and the honest.”
Tragically, though, this morally radical principle was neither fully understood nor properly championed in the eighteenth century. The social, political, and constitutional revolution of 1776 was not, unfortunately, accompanied by a thoroughgoing moral revolution. The fact of the matter is that the new nation’s founding fathers explicitly held—for the most part—conventional moral and religious principles that sometimes contradicted, or at least stood in tension with, their political individualism and laissez-faire politics.
Three Wrongs Don’t Make a Right
Throughout much of the eighteenth century, three distinct but compatible teachings dominated the moral and political lives of most Americans: 1) the doctrine of Christian love; 2) Scottish “moral sense” theory; and 3) classical republicanism. These three different moral philosophies all share one thing in common: they promote in one form or another the doctrine of altruism, which teaches that morality is defined by selflessness, self-sacrifice, and duty.
Virtually all the founders, including the deists Jefferson and Franklin, supported the moral teachings of the Christian religious tradition, which emphasized not the pursuit of this-worldly happiness but the abnegation of self-interest in the name of selfless devotion to others and to God. Religious morality holds self-sacrifice to be the highest virtue. On top of that, many of America’s founding statesmen accepted the latest moral philosophy coming from Europe, namely, the theories of the so-called Scottish “moral sense” thinkers, who argued that man has something like a natural instinct or an innate moral “sense” to do good to others. Finally, some eighteenth-century Americans were fascinated with classical Spartan or Roman virtue with its praise of selfless duty to the common good of the nation as one’s highest virtue. Gordon S. Wood, the leading historian of the American founding period, has written (in seeming contradiction to the Wood quotation above) “The sacrifice of individual interests to the greater good of the whole formed the essence of republicanism and comprehended for Americans the idealistic goal of their Revolution.” This idea of sacrifice as the highest moral duty is anathema to the truth enunciated in the Declaration of Independence that all men are endowed with unalienable rights, including the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Not surprisingly, then, most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans held simultaneously an anti-individualistic, altruistic moral code that promoted an ethic of self-sacrifice and which denounced money and the profit motive as base and immoral at the very same time that they were pursuing wealth and happiness in their daily lives as an inalienable right. The contradiction could not endure permanently. Morally speaking, America was a house divided from the start, and we all know well from Abraham Lincoln that a “house divided cannot stand.”
The example of Thomas Jefferson is instructive. The author of the Declaration of Independence and the founding father most dedicated to political laissez-faire was also a devotee of both Christian morality and the Scottish “moral sense” school of ethics. Jefferson, the founding father most distant from the tenets of organized Christianity, was, nevertheless, a self-described follower of the “genuine precepts of Jesus . . . in preference to all others.” Jefferson is well known for having made a compilation of Jesus’s moral teachings (stripped of their mystical trappings), and, in an 1815 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, he referred to Jesus as “the sublime teacher of the sermon on the mount.” It is not at all clear, however, that the “genuine precepts of Jesus” and the Sermon on the Mount can be reconciled with moral precepts associated with rugged individualism and the natural-rights doctrine contained in the Declaration. Jefferson explicitly preferred Jesus to Cicero, for instance, because the latter was too concerned with individual moral improvement, while the former taught “charity and love to our fellow men” and he “embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.” Jefferson believed that morality, strictly speaking, could only be defined by “our moral duties to others” rather than by man’s “self-interest” or “egoism.” This is because, he argued, “nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct.”
The greatness of Jesus for Jefferson was that he codified the true and most sublime teaching of man’s moral sense. By grounding morality on man’s innate moral sense rather than on his reason and the metaphysical requirements of human life, Jefferson elevated man’s social needs over individual self-interest. “Self love,” he wrote, “. . . is no part of morality.” In fact, he argued, “it is exactly its counterpart.” There is no reason to believe, however, that narcissism has anything to do with self-interest. Indeed, quite the opposite. Jefferson, the man who wrote in the Declaration that individuals have a moral right to the pursuit of happiness, also believed that self-regarding actions are “the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.” Thus, he concluded, “it is against this enemy that are erected the batteries of moralists and religionists as the only obstacle to the practice of morality.” But again, Jefferson has improperly equated “self-gratification” and “self-love” with self-interest rightly understood. Neither hedonism nor narcissism have anything to do with rational selfishness.
Jefferson’s moral philosophy is therefore a blend of Scottish moral-sense philosophy and New Testament ethics. The Virginian’s model of ethical virtue for republican America suffered from the dual problem of being simultaneously not true (i.e., the idea that man has an innate moral sense similar to sight or taste) and in tension with the moral principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The moral code preached in the Sermon on the Mount (which tells individuals to sacrifice their wealth for the needs of others) contradicts the moral code implicit in the Declaration (which says that individuals have rights to pursue their self-interest unhindered by the “needs” of others).
The founders of the American republic saw—but not quite clearly enough—that the freedom to live one’s life as one sees fit, to keep and use the fruits of one’s labor, and to pursue one’s happiness is synonymous with the freedom to act in the name of one’s own self-interest. Jesus’s various injunctions to help the poor, to not judge others “lest ye be judged,” and to turn the other cheek are anathema to the purposes of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence declared that all men have a right to acquire and accumulate wealth free of guilt; it boldly judged and condemned the actions of their trans-Atlantic neighbors in front of the entire world; it inspired the American people to stop turning the other to cheek and to lock-and-load instead; and its implicit moral message proclaimed that the rational and industrious deserve to inherit the earth, not the poor and the meek.
Benjamin Rush, another signer of the Declaration, extended the logic of Jefferson’s Christian morality to politics and education and combined it with the lessons of classical republicanism. Rush supported, for instance, a form of compulsory State education that was to serve the State and the State was to serve a higher Christian morality. In 1786, Rush made his point unmistakably clear:
Next to the duty which young men owe to their Creator, I wish to see a SUPREME REGARD TO THEIR COUNTRY inculcated upon them. . . . Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it. . . . He must be taught to amass wealth, but it must be only to increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state. . . . Above all he must love life and endeavor to acquire as many of its conveniences as possible by industry and economy, but he must be taught that this life “is not his own” when the safety of his country requires it.
Consider what Rush is actually saying here. His statement goes well beyond enlightened patriotism to something in direct opposition to the moral and political principles of the American Revolution. In teaching children that they do not belong to themselves, that they are public property, that they must forsake their families, that their fruits of their labor must be turned over to the wants and demands of the State, and that their lives are not their own, Rush is rejecting the moral principle that individuals are self-owning and self-governing, that they have a fundamental moral right to their lives, to their liberty, and to the pursuit of their happiness. Rush’s overriding moral principle is just the opposite. He demands sacrifice as the highest moral virtue. Children must be taught to sacrifice everything—their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor—for the State. Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot would no doubt approve.
In sum, the ethical-political ideal by which the founders lived their private lives—summed up best by Sam Adams’s notion of a “Christian Sparta”—was in direct opposition to the political teaching of America’s founding political testament—the Declaration of Independence. The uniquely American doctrine of individual rights, rugged individualism, and limited government cannot be reconciled with the idea of a “Christian Sparta.”
The fatal contradiction of the founders’ moral philosophy would not necessarily have led to the downfall of America’s laissez-faire government—or, at least, not so quickly—had the Constitution not contained an equally disastrous single flaw that, when combined with the moral philosophy of altruism, would eventually bring down the whole system. And that flaw, of course, was the inclusion in the Constitution of the twice repeated “general Welfare” clause, which shall be the topic of our next essay.
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